Magazine article The Humanist

A New Sense of the Sacred Carl Sagan's "Cosmic Connection"

Magazine article The Humanist

A New Sense of the Sacred Carl Sagan's "Cosmic Connection"

Article excerpt

Join me in my mind's eye for a sense I have imagined many times....

We are floating down past the sooty rooftops of the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York, in the spring of 1941. As we descend, the express train from Manhattan shocks us with its Doppler roar, barreling past us along the elevated tracks that doom broad 86th Street below to perpetual shadow. Among the sidewalk tumult of shoppers and peddlers, we find a slender woman striding purposefully with a young boy firmly in hand. She is dressed in an inexpensive but stylish outfit, impeccably coordinated gloves, hat, shoes, and matching purse--the sole perquisite of her husband's hand-to-mouth pattern-cutting job in the ladies garment industry. She holds herself high; her expression, implacable. This is the face etched by her father's cruelty and the death of her mother when she was only two. It's the face she wears with everyone but her husband and this boy. It's her dare to the world to get in her way.

She clutches the hand of her seven-year-old son, who, though tall for his age, is having a hard time keeping up with her. Why are we following them? They are so completely ordinary. Not just to us but to everyone around them. No money in the bank. No status. No connections. The multitude they move among pays them no attention, unaware that this day these two are setting forth on a cosmic journey that will traverse an incomprehensible expanse of space and time, impacting events on this world and others. Even at our remove of sixty years in the future, we know only slightly more than the unconscious bystanders of Bensonhurst that afternoon. The ultimate consequences of the journey begun this day may not unfold for a billion years, possibly culminating somewhere far, far away, in another part of the galaxy, with the decryption of a message found aboard an ancient derelict spacecraft by lifeforms exotic beyond all imagining....

And it all begins with a question posed by the boy: "What are the stars?" he asks his parents and anyone who might possibly know. His family and friends want to help but can't. They can offer nothing more satisfying than, "They're lights in the sky, kid." The boy wants to know what they really are. His mother has virtually no formal education, but she is a reader and she loves him madly, so they set out on their quest.

We follow them up the steps of and inside the Brooklyn Public Library. Standing before the librarian's desk, the boy turns to his mother, hoping she will speak for him. She gives him a look that tells him he must find his own words. He has a severe facial tic with a complex but unvarying routine. He has to wait it out before finally stammering a request for a book on the stars. The librarian nods knowingly and disappears. She returns with a book on Hollywood. Momentarily stymied, he recovers and explains that he means the stars in the sky....

Fade to the blackness of the vast interstellar ocean. Out of the darkness, a delicate, spindly Voyager spacecraft, moving at 38,000 miles per hour, zips by us on its beeline to a billion years from now. This far from home, there is no sunlight to dazzle off the golden disc that protects its precious cargo of music, images, emotions, ideas--a trove of earthly culture. From out here, the sun looks exactly like what it really is: just another star.

His was no idle, detached curiosity. It had little in common with the abstract, platonic diversions favored by the gentlemen of the academy. For Carl Sagan, it was the permanently revolutionary method of science, with its systematic and unblinking questioning of authority and dispassionate testing of all hypotheses, that promised the greatest prize of all: a deeper understanding of who, what, when, and where we are in space and time. He wanted to know the cosmos as it really was. He was completely free of the spiritual narcissism that demanded a central place in the universe for him and his kind. …

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